death, war, and the technical boy
How's that for a title? Wish I could take credit for it, but it comes to you from the brilliant mind of fellow fantasy author Kyle A. Massa, along with today's post on writing. Before that, just wanted to give you a quick update that I've updated the ever-changing Works in Progress chart at the top: Beggar's Rebellion is done! And available on Amazon for the next few days at just .99c! Book Two, Pauper's Empire, is sitting on the docket awaiting a revision before it's (hoped for) March 20th release, and Book Three, Apostate's Pilgrimage, is steaming right along at one third of a first draft! Think that one will get out in time for an April release? We'll see.
Now on to the main event:
Neil Gaiman is a baller.
Okay, that’s not a technical term. But he really is a baller. He writes novels, short stories, graphic novels, movie scripts, essays, and more. There’s tons I could discuss about his career. But today, let’s examine his use of personification.
What is personification, you ask? The New Oxford American Dictionary offers several definitions, including:
Gaiman employs this technique in almost all his works. He takes emotions, concepts, and abstract forces and condenses them into individual entities. This is one of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of fantasy authors, and Neil knows how to use it.
Let’s analyze a few examples, then explore ways to apply it to our own work.
When you picture death as a character, what do you see? Probably a skeletal dude with a black robe and a scythe.
Gaiman's version of Death is completely different. In his classic Sandman comics, Death is a young woman with a Goth wardrobe, big 80s hair, and a rather upbeat demeanor. In issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, Death offers encouragement and guidance to her little brother, the titular God of Sleep. Fans and critics have loved the character ever since. In fact, Empire Magazine ranked her the 15th best comic book character ever.
Why personify death this way? It’s about more than being different (though that is important). Sandman’s version of death shows us an alternate perspective on the concept itself. Death is frightening, yes, but it can also be merciful. Death isn’t out to get us—it’s just doing its job. And, as the character does in the comics, death can sometimes teach us important lessons about life.
Take note, writers. Personification can change our understanding of forces that might otherwise confound or disturb us.
Having an apocalypse? Don’t forget the Four Horsemen! Neil Gaiman wrote about them in his 1990 novel Good Omens, which he co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett. For those who haven’t heard the Metallica song, The Four Horsemen are Death, Famine, Pestilence (replaced by Pollution in Good Omens), and War. Let’s talk about that last one.
In Gaiman and Pratchett’s novel, war is a character, and her name is Scarlett. Here’s one of the first descriptions we get of her: “Her hair was true auburn, neither ginger nor brown, but a deep and burnished copper-color, and it fell to her waist in tresses men would kill for, and indeed often had.”
The color red conjures images of blood, which is a common ingredient of war. This color choice also reminds us of the idiom “to see red,” which refers to anger, which often incites violence, which is another of war’s essentials. Also, Gaiman and Pratchett take the common hyperbole of a trait worth killing for a make it literal.
So. What can writers learn about personification from Scarlett? Well, unlike Death, there’s nothing especially contradictory about Gaiman and Pratchett’s depiction of War. That’s because personification need not always be subversive; sometimes, writers can successfully turn a concept into a character by finding the overlap between both. War the concept is a fight on an epic scale. So War the character starts fights with her mere presence.
The Technical Boy
Question: If early 2000s technology was a character, what would it look like? Answer: The Technical Boy from American Gods.
The Technical Boy is a chubby kid who digs meaningless buzzwords and Diet Coke. His mannerisms remind one of a teenager who got too famous too fast. Here’s a description: “He wore a long black coat, made of some silky material, and he appeared barely out of his teens: a spattering of acne glistened on one cheek.”
This sort of character could (and probably should) lose relevance as years pass. Gaiman wrote American Gods in 2001, so there are no references to Twitter, live streaming, or phones that function like computers. Yet the character (and the novel itself) remains surprisingly relevant despite all the technological innovations we’ve had in the intervening 18 years.
Why? It’s because of the concept the character represents. New technology is just as arrogant, fleeting, and self-important as it ever was. For writers, the takeaway is this: personification works best when it’s timeless. If Gaiman had leaned too far into then-modern technology when writing this character, it would’ve been obsolete too soon. Rather, he focuses on the traits that will always remain true.
Personification is a unique and effective literary technique. Neil Gaiman is one of the best to ever use it, and therefore a baller. I used personification myself in my novel Gerald Barkley Rocks, I hope to similar effect. Did I succeed? I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out…
Anyway, I hope these tips have helped. Thank you to Levi for sharing this post, and thank you to you for reading it. Now get out there and write!
BEGGAR'S REBELLION IS LIVE!
Get it here, in ebook or paperback. Ebook just 99c till March 3rd!
The response has been very positive so far--just have to share this one review:
If you like rollicking adventures, you owe it to yourself to read this book! I’ll read just about anything, but my favorite genres are Science Fiction, Fantasy, and whatever umbrella you would put David Mitchell’s work under.
Beggar’s Rebellion hit every one of these wickets for me, to include a touch of in-world magical realism.
I’ll try to keep this succinct without giving anything away about the story itself. The book follows two wonderfully drawn protagonists who I cared so much about, that when the narrative left one for the other, I would become anxious about what was happening to the one I wasn’t reading about.
The story itself is like a finely crafted concerto with a melody that hooks you and brings you in and then carries you with it as the tension, excitement, and uncertainty mount until you have the catharsis of the conclusion.
Perhaps the best praise I can give this book is that I literally had to put it in a different room after I finished it to prevent myself from immediately starting over again at page 1.
Hard to argue with that! Have a read and let me know what you think, or do one better and leave me a review online!
Beggar's Rebellion Coming Soon!
It's been a long time coming. After two years without a new book, I am happy to announce the launch of the first book in my new epic fantasy series, Beggar's Rebellion.
Set in a world where everyone is tormented by inner demons, and overcoming them is the key to gaining magical power, Beggar's Rebellion is all about medieval corporations, magic-inducing herbs, nonviolent rebellions and deconstructing colonialism.
And ass-kicking. There's a lot of ass-kicking in there.
But why tell you about it when you can just read it? An excerpt from Chapter One follows. My goal right now is to have this one out February 19th, just in time for everything that's dull about late Feb and the month of March! With books two and three to drop in March and April.
I know, right? Wait two years then hit you with a trilogy in two months. That's just how I like to do it. Anyways, Chapter One:
Ellumia Aygla leaned against the ship’s wood rail, fingers of wind in her hair. It was a warm afternoon, even for the chilly south, and the sun’s light played off the river water, glinting like gems in a jeweler’s market. Scents of roast fish and lamb rolled from the top deck, over the clatter and rattle of men taking afternoon tea. The Swallowtail Mistress was one of the finest riverboats to ply the Ein, offering its passengers song and drink and game on the three-month journey from the capital through the provinces. Most were bound for the last stop, Ayugen, capital of the swelling trade in power-inducing yura moss, along with more traditional deforestation and slave collection.
She could smell the slaves, the sour odor of the galley ahead pulling them up the current, indentured men and woman made to row six years for their crimes. It was disgusting, but so much about the Councilate was disgusting: its worship of money, its flagrant excess, its destruction of cultures and people for the sake of material gain.
It was disgusting, and it was home.
Or, it had been—the Swallowtail was home now, a floating escape from her past, a way to save the money to leave it for good. For two years she’d been traveling the river, balancing the books of rich passengers to pay her berthage and save money towards the crossing the sea. It was glorious, in allowing her to make money without attachment to House or husband. Glorious, too, in the access it gave her to all the ports and peoples of the continent.
Glorious and maddening. From the main river you could reach all six of the colonies, either directly on the banks or up a tributary. The Swallowtail stopped at all of them, and for a few hours every few weeks she could mingle with the people of the docks, hear their tongues and taste their foods and admire the strangeness of their crafts. For a few precious hours she could add sight and smell and touch and taste to the travelogues she’d been reading since youth. Then it was back on the ship, back to the bureaucrats and dull ledgers and long afternoons of watching the world roll by.
She was, as far as she knew, the only tax calculor working the river. It made sense for the bureaucrats, who tended to leave the capital with personal and business ledgers in need of calculating. They could arrive in port with books ready for audit, and meeting about tax strategy gave them something to do in the long months of transit. It made sense for her too—she was able to travel, to save money towards studying at the Thousand Spires, and the lack of competition meant she didn’t have to worry about other calculors lowering rates.
That, and they’d know she was a fake.
Not that she was a fake, exactly—she kept up with the tax codes, knew the loopholes to maximize her clients’ savings, and kept clean enough books that men regularly offered to hire her. She just didn’t have a license. She’d taught herself calculism, working under her brother’s guidance. And when he was killed, spending five years getting licensure training in the city had been impossible. Besides, it was fun to spit in the eye of Councilate law.
Prophet knew they’d spit in hers.
Ella turned back to the rail. They were passing through southern Yatiland now, the hilltribe’s iconic circular settlements topping the scattered hills of the river valley. The Councilate had conquered them twenty-odd years ago, and already their port looked like Worldsmouth, their people spoke passable Yersh, and their children traveled to the capital for jobs and training. Who or what the city had been before was gone. Out here, though, days from any port or Councilate stronghold, the hilltribes held to the old ways. Squinting against the light on the water, she could make out red-haired men and woman at work in the dog kennels and terraces ringing their wooden hilltop settlements, grasses green and lush in mid-summer.
“Wild beasts they are, wild beasts,” she spoke, quoting one of her favorite travelogues. “The Yati war and kill and procreate with all the abandon of a pack of curs.” She had only been in their major port, but the Yati she met never struck her as bestial.
“Aye, and beasts they are, Miss Ella.” She turned to find Captain Ralhens, pipe clenched in a broad smile. “Never let ‘em on the Swallowtail, not once.”
She quirked her eyebrow at him. “Perhaps we are the ones who seem uncivilized to them, Captain, rowing ourselves up and down this river in search of coin, when they have all they need in the space of one hilltop.”
He shook his head. “That’s fine, if all you want is sheep and sour beer. Sounds to me like you’ve been reading too many of those books.”
“What else is a lady to do with her time at water?”
The captain hitched his leg on the lower rail. “You might find yourself a man on one of these voyages. Plenty of fine men headed south in this economy.”
Ella snorted. “All they see in me is free calculism and a set of hips.”
Ralhens reddened—the Yersh were notoriously prudish. “I think some of them would be a great improvement to the House Aygla.”
“Oh I don’t doubt that.” Aygla was the false name she’d taken, a bastard mix of major Houses Alsthen and Gayla, common to those who worked for the Houses but could claim no direct lineage. By marrying a real Alsthen or Galya, or even closer bastards like Alson or Gaya, a calculor could improve her standing, and that of her children. It was the reason many women studied in the first place, to turn wealthy clients into husbands.
She’d rather die. Ella smiled at the captain. “Soon enough.”
The captain frowned around his unlit pipe. “You’ve what, twenty-five summers now?”
“Descending Gods but you’re young still!”
She stood a bit straighter. “I’ve lived a full life.”
“I don’t doubt it, ma’am.” Ralhens cleared his throat, no doubt remembering the condition in which she first came to him. “There’s a soiree tonight, last of the voyage. You might think of going—I believe Lieutenant Warmsmith is recently widowed.”
“What do you think all this is for?” Ella gestured at her dress, one of the Brinerider gowns she kept for special occasions.
“Oh, ah, yes.” He cleared his throat, reddening now for a different reason. She had that effect on men. “Well.” He tipped his hat to her.
Ella smiled, watching him go. They had some version of this talk on every voyage, and she believed he was genuinely concerned for her. Naive, and no idea who she was even after two years, but a good man nonetheless. He was the closest thing she had to a friend here.
I’m almost offended, her voice said.
Her smile turned wry. “You’re hardly a friend, LeTwi. More like a virulent and inescapable pest.”
At least I’m not trying to marry you off. His tone was educated and world-weary, as if speaking was barely worth the effort.
“Ralhens means well. He just can’t see past the ideas of his parents.”
Ah. And you can?
“I can see the whole thing is fishscat, if that’s what you mean. You did too!” Before dying and becoming her voice, LeTwi had been a highly respected scholar, one of the Advisors to the Council, though he hadn’t much involved himself in politics. She’d read everything he wrote.
My approach was slightly different. I said everything is fishscat, to use your terms. The challenge is to be brave enough to live with that knowledge.
“I—“ Ella cut off, a man coming from topdeck and passing by. Councilate culture held that voices were childish fancies, something to be suppressed by adulthood. Though she knew other cultures viewed them differently, it was still embarrassing to be caught talking to herself. “And you think I don’t have that courage?”
I think your search for meaning in primitive cultures is a clever way of running from the facts. But no, if you must know.
“And if I find something out there that is truly different than Councilate fishscat?”
LeTwi sighed—he was good at sighing. There is a certain inertia to history, dear. Even if you do find something, it will take a long time to change minds.
“Not if I become an Advisor.” The Council had just gotten its first female Councilor, Salea Deyenal. It wasn’t so far off to imagine she could become an Advisor.
Ah yes. The old irony of hating the Councilate, but intending to work for it.
“To make it better. What else can I do? The whole world will be under its control before long.”
There is nothing else, my dear. Though I did find solace in wine. Speaking of which, aren’t there husbands you’re meant to be wooing? The band had struck up a song on the top deck.
“Clients, LeTwi.” She stood from the rail—there were still a few men on board who hadn’t come to her for bookkeeping. “One last job would bring us to a nice even total for the voyage.”
And you say you’re above Councilate money-grubbing.
Ella opened her mouth, then turned for the topdeck. LeTwi had an annoying way of getting the last word.
The soiree was held under the canopy on top deck, polished wood floorboards reflecting the warm light of lanterns as the sun sank. Musicians played at the rear, merry Worldsmouth strings over tuned Seinjial drums. Smoke rolled from the grill, lemon sizzling over perch and lamb, and Ella’s stomach rumbled. There were perks to working on a top-class riverboat—travelers on most other boats ate rice and beans the entire voyage.
Ella scanned the clusters of men, looking for those she hadn’t done books for. Colonel Olgsby stood near the bar with two House men she hadn’t done books for—Odril and Gettels, she thought they were. Ella approached them. “Gentlemen. I’m glad to see concerns of the coming port haven’t dampened your spirits.”
Odril grinned, showing too many teeth. “Never.”
The old Colonel inclined his head. “You’re referring to the so-called rebellion? Hardly worth losing a supper for, my lady. Would you care to join us?”
She gave them a practiced smile. “I would love to.” She had already done Olgsby’s personal books, but perhaps she could get one of the others to bite.
They took a table near the bow, star tinting the sunset a lovely purple on the river’s waters. “I don’t know why you don’t just quash them,” Odril was saying. He was a mid-level bureaucrat with a sallow complexion and beady eyes. “I thought the rebels were wiped out years ago.”
“This is a new breed,” Olgsby waved his hand as though brushing aside gnats. “Guerilla fighters, cowards, hiding down in the yura mines. They haven’t done much more than property damage—fifty, maybe a hundred untrained fighters maximum. If they try anything real the garrison will sort them out.”
“Well I say we bring the Titans in. Crush ‘em.” Odril watched her as he said this, and Ella kept a polite smile on her mouth. Male posturing among men old enough to be one’s father was a professional hazard.
“Perhaps what they need is to be included in the political process,” she said, arranging a napkin on her lap.
“An Achuri House?” the old colonel spluttered. “Never! We only just began recognizing Seinjial Houses last year!”
“With the costs I hear of troop deployment and maintenance, it might save us money in the long run, to just let them have a small say in things.” She didn’t need LeTwi’s snide remark to know how likely the idea was to fall on deaf ears, but she had to try.
Odril gave her a patronizing smile. “Oh we hardly need to save money. With the amount we’re making in yura, the whole city could rise up and it wouldn’t dent our profits.”
Profitability was a point of pride among these men, and one of contention between the Houses. Perhaps if she could start them boasting about money, she could work one of them into a job. “So Alsthen is doing well then?”
The sallow bureaucrat puffed up. She had noticed men, when they were competing for a woman’s attention, tended to act like preening turkeys. Odril certainly fit the bill at present. “Extremely well. Ninety percent of the construction in New Ayugen is ours.”
Was that a light of jealousy in Gettels’ eyes? “Mr. Gettels, I hear your House has been turning quite a profit on dried winterfoods of late.”
He puffed his own chest out. “We have, it—“
“Passing fad,” Odril cut in. “It’ll never match yura for demand.”
“On the contrary,” the other said, back straightening, “it appears the two complement each other quite nicely.”
Ella nodded. “Recent broadsheets are theorizing the reason so many of us can’t use yura, or only weakly, is the lack of winterfoods in our diet. Without it, you can’t metabolize uai, and without uai, there is no power for yura to offer.”
Odril glanced between them, deflating slightly. “Well yura will always be more important.”
Ella took a glass of wine from a serving man. “I suppose the measure of that would be whose House is doing better.”
Gettels eyed Odril. “We’re doing remarkably well.”
Odril eyed him back. “Alsthen is doing ludicrously well.”
Ella struck an innocent expression. “You must have so many books to calculate.”
“Oh piles and piles.”
She smiled. “You know I’m offering calculism aboard the ship, if you’d rather arrive with books ready for audit.”
Gettels paused, fully inflated and caught in her trap. But Odril waved a hand. “I have my own calculors.”
“How disappointing.” She turned her shoulder to him, knowing it would appear to the other men that he’d lost her favor. “And you, Mr. Gettels? Have you any need? I am free tomorrow. We could meet mid-morning.”
“I—well, I don’t have much with me, but I suppose—“
“I’ll take that meeting, Miss Aygla,” Odril cut in, glaring at the other man. “I have quite a few books that need calculating, and it couldn’t hurt to have some done early.”
She smiled at him, while LeTwi made some sarcastic comment and the colonel goggled at the whole affair. A little competition could work wonders. “Excellent. Have them sent over, and I’ll calculate them by tomorrow evening.”
Odril’s smile was oily. “I’ll bring them myself.”
Another professional hazard—men mistaking an offer of services for something more. Fortunately, she had a supply of yura and a resonant power no one could match, should things go wrong.
Commotion at another table caught her attention—a darkhaired serving boy was sprawled on the deck, one of the white-coated military men standing over him, wine staining his trousers. “I’ll have the price of that out of your hide, boy!”
The other men at the table chuckled, apparently enjoying the show. The ‘boy’ was not much younger or smaller than the soldier, but he stayed where he was on the floor, clearly aware none of his options were good.
Ella stood. “Unhand him, sir.”
The soldier turned, startled, then softened on seeing her. “Ah. My apologies, madam—this is no sight for a lady. But justice must be had.”
She cocked her head. “Do you think he did it to you on purpose?”
“I wager he did, the mudhaired lout!”
“And to what advantage would that have been? Not only are you armed with military training and blade, but with money and background he could never hope to have.”
“Why, for spite itself, if naught else,” the man rejoined, but he was deflating some as more began to watch.
“And have you previous offense with this man, to cause such spite? Nay, goodsir, this was accident alone. And if accident it was, there is no crime for which to demand justice.”
“And my trousers?” he demanded, gesturing to the spreading stain. “Shall I pay for them out of pocket?”
Ella scoffed. “If you are too mean to cover such damages I shall pay for them myself, sir. Have the bill sent to my room.”
The soldier stuttered, then with a stiff bow said, “That won’t be necessary.” The serving boy, sensing his opportunity, scrambled away.
Ella couldn’t keep a satisfied grin from her face as she sat back down. The Colonel nodded to her. “I’ll see no harm befalls the boy. The man was overreacting.”
“Quite right,” Gettels put in, and Odril nodding, watching her with new attention.
Ella smiled to them. Who said you couldn’t change the world with a different set of ideas?
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