Friday, December 16, 2011

Guest Post: “On Gritty vs. Heroic Fantasy” by Michael Sullivan

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In this week’s guest post, we’re taking a break from our Influences & Inspirations series with Michael Sullivan, author of the superb The Riyria Revelations. Michael offers his thoughts on today’s fantasy scene, his approach to writing his novels, and the value of optimistic stories and heroes.

“On Gritty vs. Heroic”

MichaelSullivan-AuthorPicHello, my name is Michael J. Sullivan and I want to thank Stefan for inviting me to visit with you today. Usually I start off by saying you probably don’t know who I am, but I can’t use that line here because of the generous mentions by Civilian Reader about The Riyria Revelations and The Viscount and the Witch. So, first and foremost I wanted to extend a heart-felt thank you. I am forever grateful to the fantasy blogging community, who are directly responsible for any success my books may receive. Your tireless efforts to keep fantasy readers informed are a tremendous service to the community and I wanted to thank you for all that you do.

For those that don’t know anything about The Riyria Revelations, it can best be described as traditional epic fantasy; some have even called it classic fantasy. While many books these days have trended toward the gritty and dark, mine have an undercurrent of optimism. Sure my main characters, feature people of dubious distinction (Royce is a thief and former assassin, and Hadrian is an ex-mercenary who has shed more than his fair share of blood), but when the need arises, they ultimately do the right thing and become unlikely heroes.

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Call me old-fashioned, but I like the idea of heroes. Proponents of the darker side of fantasy claim that it is more realistic. That there is no such thing as a good man, corruption runs rampant, lust, hate, and jealousy abound and there is no happily-ever-after. I see things differently. Maybe it’s that I choose to focus on the positive. I truly believe that each year is better than the one before. Racism, while not extinct, is much different today than when I was growing up in the ’60s. Medical advances have saved tens of thousands of lives, and food is abundant and relatively inexpensive. Technology has given us hundreds of entertainment options providing thousands of hours of enjoyment. All in all, I consider myself fortunate to have been born when I was, and I’m encouraged that my children’s lives will be better than my own.

That being said, I’m willing to concede that not everyone sees the world as I do. As Royce points out in The Nature of Right, what someone believes is largely a matter of perception, and I’m aware that my spectacles may be rose-tinted and my glass half-full. But if that is true, then shouldn’t our fantasy reading be an escape to somewhere that will give us some solace from all the negativity?

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I’ve written a fantasy series and it is meant to exemplify how I would like reality to be. My purpose in doing so is to entertain. I want you to be whisked away on an adventure accompanied by people you like, going somewhere new and exciting, even while surrounded by work, school, or current pressing obligations. Sure, the trip won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve been known to kill off more than a few beloved characters, but they don’t die indiscriminately. This is a story, not a chronicle of events, and I take full advantage of deciding when and why something occurs. If there are hardships that my characters endure, it is so that they can overcome obstacles and become better for having weathered the experience.

My books touch on classic themes, not because I’m trying to provide a counter-balance to current trends, but because I wrote a book that I wanted to read. I fell in love with fantasy in the ’60s and ’70s, and quite frankly, I’d been away from the genre for so long, that I wasn’t even aware there had been a shift to dark gritty realism. The idea for the series actually came to me in 1990 and it has been over twenty-one years in the making, so any timing is just the result of serendipity. Still, I’m always pleased to see comments where people say that the series reminds them of why they fell in love with the genre in the first place. I think that some thematic elements, if done well, never go out of style.

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I’d like to leave you today, with some writing that sums up my feelings better than I ever could, and yes I realize the irony of that statement. But Tim McCanlies, masterfully conveyed the sentiment in just a few lines and he deserves full credit. He wrote one of my favorite movies, Second Hand Lions. The story centers around a boy on the verge of manhood (Haley Joel Osment) who has been lied to his entire life. He has spent the summer with his two eccentric great-uncles (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine) who have been filling his head with tales of adventure that supposedly occurred during their youth. Haley isn’t sure whether the stories are true and Duvall gives him a piece of his “what every boy needs to know about being a man” which says it all.

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

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Also on CR: Interview with Michael, reviews of The Viscount and the Witch and Theft of Swords

17 comments:

  1. Very well said, Michael. I've had my eyes on your The Riyria Revelations for a while now, but I think this has just bumped you into the purchase pile. Thanks.

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  2. Great Bob...I know that TBR piles are massive it's a good time that there are so many quality books out these days. I hope you do enjoy what you read once you get to it.

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  3. So to pull some of our Twitter discussion to here, in order to make lengthier and more meaningful comments, we have touched upon the difference between "heroic" and "dark," likable and flawed characters, heroism as a choice rather than as a personality trait, and fantasy as escapism.

    I want to follow up on that last and question whether fantasy is really about escapism. I have found many meaningful questions addressed in fantasy, especially about the nature of bravery and heroism in terms of doing the difficult rather than the easy, comfortable thing, and why one person's villainy might be another's heroism.

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  4. One thing I should mention - as it came up in Twitter. By using "Vs." I didn't mean to imply that there is a "fight" or "winner" or one is better than the other. I meant it in regards to contrast.

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  5. Mazarkis said...
    I want to follow up on that last and question whether fantasy is really about escapism.


    All I can speak to is "my personal preference - not a larger what fantasy "should" be. Which is what this post is really about - why I choose to write what I do. So yes for me my reading (in regards to fiction as a whole - not just fantasy) I prefer to "escape". I want to be transported to places and visit with people whose time I enjoy.

    Mazarkis said...
    I have found many meaningful questions addressed in fantasy, especially about the nature of bravery and heroism in terms of doing the difficult rather than the easy, comfortable thing, and why one person's villainy might be another's heroism


    Questing the nature of things is a trait of all good books - regardless of genre. And yes as pointed out in my guest post in many (most) cases everything is a matter of perception. Is a person a freedom fighter or rebel? Maybe both. Is it villiany to murder in all cases? What if the victim is Hitler?

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  6. I once wrote somewhere, that thematic exploration is something fantasy can do better than any other form of literature because it frees the author and reader from the preconceptions of reality. So in that case, I don't think escapism precludes deep novels. A good novel does both things exceptionally well.

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  7. Oh no, not Hitler! :)

    Hmm, well this is interesting. When I see 'escapism' I guess I imagine freedom from worry and from all those pesky questions of life. For example, I watch junk TV for pure escapism. But I take it that you (Michael) mean by it that you wish to be transported. I do think that's an element of fantasy that's important, but it is also a tool by which we authors are able to address issues while at the same time making them less personal and immediate to the reader.

    As far as liking the heroes--it is nice to read about people I like, but I have also enjoyed books (such as Prince of Thorns) in which I did not like the hero/anti-hero.

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  8. The joy of the fantasy field today is there there is plenty of room for writers to express their points of view and their takes on heroism in fantasy.

    There IS room for Michael Sullivan AND Joe Abercrombie, John C Wright AND Steven Erikson.

    There is no one true way. As was mentioned on twitter, write what jazzes you, and the readers will feel and respect that.

    If you wrote a bunch of unsympathic antiheroes with a pessimistic tone, Michael, in an effort to get to the audience that likes that sort of thing, it would feel false.

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  9. Justin said...
    I once wrote somewhere, that thematic exploration is something fantasy can do better than any other form of literature because it frees the author and reader from the preconceptions of reality. So in that case, I don't think escapism precludes deep novels. A good novel does both things exceptionally well.


    Couldn't agree more.

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  10. Mazarkis said...
    When I see 'escapism' I guess I imagine freedom from worry and from all those pesky questions of life. For example, I watch junk TV for pure escapism. But I take it that you (Michael) mean by it that you wish to be transported.


    Watching junk TV (for me) would be vegetating or winding-down. Basically when I want to turn my head off and not think.

    That wasn't what I meant by escaping - I do mean transportation. When I used to watch The West Wing when it was on - there was tons of conflict - but (especially in the early years) all the people were interesting, competitent and working toward a goal of aspiring to greatness. For me it wasn't what I thought the White House was...but it was the White House that I "wanted".

    Mazarkis said...
    As far as liking the heroes--it is nice to read about people I like, but I have also enjoyed books (such as Prince of Thorns) in which I did not like the hero/anti-hero.

    I've heard nothing but great things about Lawrence's book. I haven't read it yet as I am afraid that my personal preference of having to "like" the main character would make it not as enjoyable (for me). Don't get me wrong - a character doesn't have to be a paladin all shiny and bright but I wrote a book with a truly unlikeable character and while I love the writing and the story...I'm not sure I should ever publish it as it is not something I would like to read - and in many ways that is my litmus test.

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  11. Paul Weimer said...
    The joy of the fantasy field today is there there is plenty of room for writers to express their points of view and their takes on heroism in fantasy.

    There IS room for Michael Sullivan AND Joe Abercrombie, John C Wright AND Steven Erikson.

    There is no one true way. As was mentioned on twitter, write what jazzes you, and the readers will feel and respect that.


    Amen!

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  12. Yes, Amen to Paul.

    Again I largely agree with you Michael, in that it's also my preference that the people I'm writing about, though they are sometimes discouraged, misled, or occupied with revenge, will eventually rise to the occasion and do what they think is right.

    I don't have to like my characters, though I do have to love them.

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  13. I think there can be a gap between how much the author "likes" a character and how much the reader likes him/her. As an author, I need to find something not only interesting about my protagonist, but also like him on some level, if I am going to be able to portray him as a human being on the page. That doesn't mean I'd necessarily ever want to sit down with my protagonist and have a beer (or, heaven forbid, meet him in a dark alley), but there has to be something that I, the writer, both sympathize with and find engaging about him. I can still think he is a bad person, but that doesn't mean I can't "like" aspects of him.

    I think this is crucial, because if we want the reader to connect with the character and the story, we want to have some sort of workable relationship with said character. They can be loathsome and despicable (the character, not the readers :), but there has to be some sort of connection. That may not meet everyone's definition of "like", and it will certainly vary by author, but it's vital on both levels. I know one of the things I worked hard at were finding ways to make Drothe, if not always likable, then at least engaging and understandable for the reader. How the reader ultimately feels about the character is up to them; but I, as the writer, need to be able to see how someone else could connect with them, even if they at first may not want to.

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  14. Thanks for clarifying your stance on Heroic fantasy, Michael. I do want to add your post was not antagonistic, but I have seen other blog posts that have been quite vehement about pushing one form over the other. I think there's room both and I’m glad we can talk about them without resorting to disparaging remarks. I appreciate your Twitter answers too; I think you’ve helped clarify some of my thoughts on the matter.

    This is just my opinion on the whole thing, nothing more. I want the characters I’m reading about to intrigue me the way one like Glokta in Abercrombie's The Blade Itself does or Mark Lawrence’s Jorg. These are not men or women who are learning to be noble, but they are men and women who have LEARNED from past experiences. Maybe the lessons they take away from their life experiences are more brutal than most, but they have survived uncommon situations to become uncommon people. That fascinates me.

    Some people find that kind of fantasy depressing. I don’t. I see a lot of hope in some of these works, and real people that I feel I can relate to. I guess that’s what it’s all about for me.

    I know a lot of people love Heroic fantasy because of the journey itself and the discoveries the hero makes along the way. Sometimes I wish I could still believe in those qualities that you so eloquently express in your post but I don’t, at least not in the same way now as I once did.

    Then again, I’m the kind of writer that sits in the dark and picks at old wounds until they bleed.

    I like your attitude, Michael and I appreciate this: “There IS room for Michael Sullivan AND Joe Abercrombie, John C Wright AND Steven Erikson. There is no one true way. As was mentioned on twitter, write what jazzes you, and the readers will feel and respect that.”

    To each his own. Thanks.

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  15. I think classical heroic fantasy is the best.
    Gritty is just for ocassional fun.

    I love that saying from Second Hand Lions, Michael.

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  16. "Still, I’m always pleased to see comments where people say that the series reminds them of why they fell in love with the genre in the first place. I think that some thematic elements, if done well, never go out of style."

    Well said! In the end the Hero (or plural) has to win the day and get the girl/boy. :)

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