Archive for February, 2012

Character Profiles: The Crazy Person who Knows Something

Literature | Posted by Shannon
Feb 29 2012

“So … do we call you Peet?” Janner asked, fishing for more answers to his mounting questions. “Is that your real name?”

The Sock Man stirred the boiling pot with a long wooden spoon and didn’t answer.

The Igibys stared at him in an awkward silence.

“What’s a real name?” Peet said finally. He pointed the spoon at Janner. “Is Janner Igiby your real name?”

“Yes sir.”

“Is it?”

– Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

Small town, boys. Crazy people hear lots of things. – Peet the Sock Man

Peet the Sock Man was crazy. You knew it from the moment you saw him – a ragged man with a haggard face and filthy knitted stockings on his hands. He talked gibberish to lampposts and attacked street signs, but for all that he was harmless. Even to street signs, which tended to have the best of whatever contests the Sock Man challenged them to.

The Glipwood townspeople often saw him in town. Sometimes he skipped through with a stick in his mouth, or with one eye shut. Sometimes they saw him juggling buckets by the cliffs, or walking on his hands while chanting nonsense rhymes.

But nobody ever talked to him.

When Janner Igiby finally did, he heard – even if he did not recognize – the first ringing of a truth that overturned his world.

Peet the Sock Man was a Crazy Person who Knows Something.

Crazy People who Know Something are loads of fun*. They’re usually an unknown quantity, and always an unstable one. The right of such characters is unconventional behavior; the purpose is mystery and sometimes even amusement.

Frequently – maybe even usually – the Crazy Person is not actually crazy. The reputation of madness is created by misunderstanding or even malice. Sometimes it’s just eccentricity mistaken for insanity – for the line between the two, though real, can grow very fine.

And sometimes – as with the Sock Man – the insanity is genuine. I’ve seen this less. A truly mad, yet knowing, person is a harder balance, a more demanding character. It’s not always simple to write a character who has lost his mind, but not all of it – insanity leavened with sanity. Peet, accurately enough, called himself crazy. But he wouldn’t have known he was crazy unless he was at least somewhat sane.

Whether mad in reputation or in fact, the Crazy Person always does Know Something. You wonder how. You wonder what – being crazy or just strange – he’s going to do about it.


* In fiction, anyway

CSFF Blog Tour: When Pop Culture and High Fantasy Collide

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 22 2012

In my review of Realms Thereunder, I said that Ross Lawhead was like D. Barkley Briggs in rejecting the ideal Elves of Tolkien for the ambiguous fairies of folklore. There is another way in which they are similar: Both invoked pop culture in their fantasy novels.

I’ve been pondering this. Is it a bad idea for fantasy writers to mention things that belong so plainly – and so narrowly – to our own time and culture? Dr. Who and high fantasy just don’t mix – and much, much less do Whoppers and high fantasy.

But is that part of the point? Pop culture and fantasy are generally a rude collision, but so, usually, would be the children of pop culture and the worlds of fantasy. Doesn’t the one accentuate the other – two worlds rasping against each other?

Maybe. It could also be that such references tie a book too closely to its own time. Fantasy ought to reach for timelessness – or universality, which may be the same thing. Pop culture – well, most of it, and we’d be hard-pressed to guess the exceptions – is parochial and passing. Why date a story with such things? The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is dated by the plot device of using the German bombing raids to get the children into Professor Kirke’s house; at least it isn’t dated by the Pevensie children chatting about whatever BBC radio programs were popular seventy years ago.

To flip the coin again, you can’t lose sight of the present for the future. If you write a YA fantasy novel with pop references, it may help you connect with your present readers. It may also distance you from future ones. If you had to choose – which would you choose?

And does it make any difference if you mention things like Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz – which already have a measure of timelessness in their own right? Is it more excusable if, like Ross Lawhead, you turn the reference to a good joke?

I don’t know. I think this post shows I can see both points of view. There are, I believe, times when referencing pop culture is entirely acceptable. Yet my inclination is generally against it. I take the side of timelessness or, better yet, universality. And anyway, rasping can make for a pretty unpleasant sound.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Realms Thereunder

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 21 2012

He’s a homeless man living on the streets of Oxford, trying to eat and yearning for the realms thereunder. She’s an Oxford student with a lifetime of lies and an abundance of compulsions – dreading every day the realms thereunder. It’s hard to say which of them has the bigger problem.

As children, Daniel and Freya were trapped in another world. As young adults, they live uneasily in this one. She’s running from the same thing he’s looking for, but as before, the question will be settled by other powers.

From Narnia on down we’ve read stories of people who pass from our humdrum world into a magical one. At first glance, The Realms Thereunder appears to be one of those stories. At second glance, it looks a little different. It reminds me of the old folk tales, where a miller could fall asleep in a cave and wake up to find himself in the fairies’ court. It’s new and dangerous territory, yet you know that it’s not a different world so much as a hidden part of our own. So too with the realms thereunder: It is, secretly, our world.

Ross Lawhead achieves this sense of unity largely by building his underground world with our history and our myths. The repeated – and historically accurate – allusions to King Alfred and the Danes form a strong connection. So, in a stranger way, do the legends Lawhead brings in and makes out to be part of our history –  a lost part, as the realms thereunder are a hidden part of our world.

There are other ways in which Ross Lawhead integrates old fairytales into his story. His Elves are less Tolkienesque, more traditional. In this he reminds me of D. Barkley Briggs, the last author we toured. Different as Briggs’ fairies are from Lawhead’s Elves, both are a definite break from Tolkien’s idealized Elves. Both are a return to the ambiguity of the old folk stories. Lawhead employs the old superstition about the Fair People fearing iron and – in an inspired moment – takes his readers to a fairy market.

The construction of Realms Thereunder is unusual in two ways that, I believe, bear mentioning. One is that the book is written from an omniscient viewpoint. The narrator, however, is reserved despite his omniscience; he slips through perspectives but rarely inserts his own. Secondly, the book alternates between telling a story in the present and a story in the past. Stories built like this are more difficult for writers to do well and readers to enjoy, but Lawhead manages it with smooth competence.

I will say that the book could have used a more robust editing process. There were a number of small substantive errors. Early in the book, a character kills an inhuman creature that attacks him, spilling its “black lifeblood”. Then our hero hastily cleans himself up, rubbing the thing’s blood off his skin until only a “thin red film” is left. Black blood leaves a red film?

Or the author simply forgot what he’d already written. My money’s on that one, because a few chapters later the creatures are said to have brown blood.

There were other little things that should have been caught, such as the moment when one character was “constantly rejecting the almost constant impulse”. It may have also been better not to use long or still twice in the same sentence.

In the larger things of the story, Lawhead acquits himself well. He lays a fascinating premise and carries it off satisfyingly. The worlds he creates are vivid – sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible. Daniel and Freya, the protagonists, are realistic and sympathetic. They feel unfinished, but in a good way, one that left me wanting to see how the story will mold and make them. The Realms Thereunder is a good book – and, I trust, the beginning of a good series.


It’s that time again – time for links. As always, we have the author’s link and the book’s link, and also the links for the tour:

Gillian Adams
Red Bissell

Thomas Clayton Booher

Keanan Brand

Beckie Burnham
Melissa Carswell
Jeff Chapman
CSFF Blog Tour
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Tori Greene
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Janeen Ippolito
Rebekah Loper
Marzabeth
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirriam Neal
Eve Nielsen
Nissa

John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Joan Nienhuis
Crista Richey
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren

Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Nicole White
Rachel Wyant

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Character Profiles: The Masked Hero

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 07 2012

We’ve come to save you. This man in the ridiculous black costume – ”

“It art not ridiculous, thou pigeony person!”

” – is the Florid Sword. Or you can call him Gammon, like I do.”

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

The Florid Sword was a dashing hero in black, jumping down from rooftops to skewer Fangs and foil Stranders. As a rule, Stranders need foiling and Fangs need skewering. That so few volunteer for the job is a pity, though not a wonder. This is especially true in the case of the Fangs. Fangs may be stupider than Stranders, but they are also crueler, and they have armies behind them – and the fist of the Nameless One. People usually submitted.

The Florid Sword rebelled. Under the blackness of night and his own clothes, with a quick blade and cat-like grace, he gave a sliver of justice to an oppressed people. Mysterious and anonymous behind his mask, rumors about him ran far.

He was a Masked Hero. Unquestionably, a man has reason to disguise himself in his double life as an outlaw – even when, like Gammon, he is an outlaw in his primary life, too. It’s a wonderfully solid excuse for a grown man to run around in a costume and say things like, “The Florid Sword hath run you through like unto a bolt of iron lightning piercing the watery depths of the Mighty Blapp, may she run wide and muddy all the days of mine own life!”

It’s also a good excuse for an author to have a character exclaim: “I seest only children in the sights I see with mine seeing eyes!” But it must be said that Andrew Peterson is unique in making such dialogue an advantage of the Masked Hero.

Other advantages he finds in the Masked Hero are typical – stock, even. First among them is all the romance and swashbuckling glory of the hero whose face no one knows. Second is playing the mystery of who is behind the mask. Zorro, the perfection of the Masked Hero, began as that sort of drama. The climax of The Curse of Capistrano was when Zorro was revealed to the readers to be Don Diego. A few of them had probably guessed it already, but until then no one knew.

Now everybody knows. Now the drama of Zorro is in watching him try to keep his secret while enemies and friends alike try to uncover it. This is the second way of mining story gold from a Masked Hero. I think it is also the more common one, and probably the more popular.

The Masked Hero is never too far from a cliche, but it’s a good cliche. Something in him makes the imagination leap. Human beings love a secret, after all, and the face behind the mask is a delicious one. Who doesn’t like to see the Masked Hero finally unmasked? And who, knowing the secret, doesn’t like to watch characters try to discover it?

Who wouldn’t like to step out of their ordinary lives, put on a dashing costume, and run into the night to perform daring and heroic deeds?