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Character and Exposition are Plot: Why most pop critical terms aren't useful to writers

Why isn't Conan a Mary Sue?

Because one of his legs is both the same like Dumarest and Dr Who and Roland and the screen Wonder Woman, he faces worthy opponents and perils and victory is often bitter sweet.

I wrote about this at length for Black Gate (still no Hugo, but we now have a World Fantasy Award, by the way). If you dialled back the opposition and, say, had Conan settle down in Tolkien's Shire to protect the hobbits from the fallout from the Ring War, then he'd suddenly be this all-travelled, super-cosmopolitan, uber killing machine; an embarrassing Mary Sue (using the looser definition of the term*). The same goes for most competent characters who protagonate. It's the plot that makes a Mary Sue, not the character.

This is because plot is character...

Before you skip to the comments section to craft a detailed refutation drawing on both timeless classics and recent Science Fiction, ask yourself: given that the author controls all the action and the reader experiences the story in the order presented, what part of the depiction of character isn't plot? 

You might say something like, "If they live in a windmill then that's not plot". However, the windmill implies backstory - plot that happened before this story began - and the moment when the author choses to show us the car and windmill is part of the plot, for example, as a way of setting expectations about the quirky character, or as a revelation about the character's secret life. 

For me, the revelation that "plot is character" dissolves many popular critical terms.

Take, "the characters were thin".  Many classic books renown for their rich characterisation are actually rather short by modern standards(*). The Great Gatesby weighs in at 47K. Catcher in the Rye, 73K. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about 50K. Of Mice and Men, about 30K.

How do they fit in that rich characterisation? By having plots that force the characters to show us who they really are far more effectively than could any literary character sketch, no matter how elegant and insightful. So if the characters seem thin, then perhaps the story needs more plot.

Conversely, the same goes for, "the story was too slow paced". Some really big fat volumes are riveting reads right until the end of the series.

How do they manage to have plots that stretch so very far? By having characters who generate plot by being themselves. Powerful, complex characters on all sides take a long time to battle it out. So if the story seems slow paced, perhaps it needs more dynamic chracters to make stuff happen.

Similar reasoning suggests that exposition is also plot.

Going back to that windmill: because the experience of consuming story is linear, the presentation of information is also part of the plot. We see this in movies when the we cut from the kissing couple to the sniper who's already in position. The sniper has been there all along, the timing of that reveal is part of the plot.

Thus, "too many info dumps/ too much exposition" can't usually point to a problem with quantity of information.

For a start, novels belonging to the genres Crime and Hard Science Fiction are almost by definition built on the presentation and uncovering of information. Nobody complains that Ellis Peters has too much exposition. Adept authors present information as part of the plot, even when seeding it for later or just giving us texture. For example, in one of his Sharpe books, Bernard Cornwell manages to give us a detailed explanation of how a flintlock musket works by simple dint of having a malignant sergeant accusing the hero of selling part of it for profit.

Going further, some authors make an art of the intriguing info dump: Charlie, of course, plus Douglas Adams, Garrison Keillor, Umberto Ecco, and the Father of Lies History himself, Herodotos. They make the info dump a story in its own right - flash fiction, if you like, anchored to the main story. Herodotus gave his name to a particular technique for doing this: Herodotian Ring Composition.

In a nutshell, Herodotus was big on asides like this...

The Athenian fleet pulled into Boros, an island famous for its intelligent sheep.

The story goes that Zeus once pursued the nymph Calliope across the Peloponnese.  Spurning his attentions, the nymph turned herself into a ewe. Undeterred, Zeus cornered her on the cliffs near Tiryns and consummated his lust. However, afterwards he experienced disgust and tossed the ill-used sheep into the sea. The now-pregnant ewe swam one hundred leagues to Boros, where she spawned a race of sheep renown for their disquieting intelligence and the knowing looks with which they lavish human males.

It was on the very beach where Calliope once came ashore, that the Athenian fleet made landfall. One of the officers remarked that there was no sign of the flocks of famous sheep. The commander deduced that the Spartans must be waiting in ambush. However, he ordered his men... 

So when readers complain about the info dumps, it usually means that they need to be better integrated with the plot, or need to have their own mini-plots.

For me, all this unpacks the infuriating advice you sometimes hear from veteran writers: Don't worry about all that literary stuff. Just write a good story.

It's all plot.


M Harold Page is the Scottish author of  The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), (epub here) an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with "local difficulties" as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and  Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic(Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.") 

61 Comments

1:

Wow. Reading this actually made me want to sit down and write a novel for the first time in quite a while (it used to be a fantasy, but life, ...). I'm not sure whether to thank you or curse you, but either way, well said. :)

2:

No names, no pack drill (oddly, since the guilty I have in mind are all military SF novels), but when your SF novel includes 30 pages of "Death by Powerpoint" to tell us stuff that some or all of the characters (present in that scene) know, that's a "lack of plot" yes?

3:

Agreed. These days I tend to put books down when I hit the dreaded wall of text that begins with "As you know....". Life is too short.

Life is never too short to read all the digressions in a good translation of Herodotus.

4:

> Agreed. These days I tend to put books down when I hit the dreaded wall of text that begins with "As you know....". Life is too short.

Yes, and the same goes for other "elegant" ways of seeding exposition. If it doesn't arrive as a beat in its own right, then it doesn't usually have a place. Even Herodotus - if I recall correctly - has a kind of contrast between his digressions and the action in hand.

5:

> I'm not sure whether to thank you or curse you, but either way, well said. :)

Yes, the muse is a mixed blessing. Sorry!

6:

There's an insight here that I think you're in danger of losing by using the pithy and provocative "plot is character" and "exposition is plot"*.

If character means anything distinct, then what you're sort of saying is that character is best expressed through plot, and that character interacts with plot in a variety of ways both obvious and subtle. And that plot can't be extracted from the story (sorry back of book blurb writers and wikipedia plot summary editors) as something unrelated to character without losing it's shape and meaning. And this is at the very least interesting and a possible guide to solving story issues that at first glance might be unrelated to the plot.

Maybe I need to think about this some more.

* Because if character is plot, and exposition is plot, and word choice is plot, and (presumably) plot is plot... we're almost saying "everything in the story is plot" which sort of loses any distinction as we're looking at the entire story through an expanded and extensive lens of "plot" which doesn't gain us anything that a holistic view would give us anyway. Or so I'd think.

7:

You make a good point. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that all the elements are part of the plot, and thus work, or not, according to the laws of plot.

What I haven't said are what I think the laws of plot are...

8:

There's at least two alternative methods for infodumps, whuch can actually serve & increase the plot tension ...
(1) The Appendices, as per LotR - themseleves often containing stories a la Herodotus
(2) Footnotes *
* Pterry

9:

And little pseudo historical quotes opening a chapter - I did that with Swords Versus Tanks.

I wager all of these, when they *feel* right, still partake of the structure of the story, and if long, are little mini tales.

10:

I disagree with your initial premise, mostly because I'm old school.

To me, a Mary Sue (and her distaff equivalents) have to be new characters externally imposed on someone else's creation. Conan isn't a Mary Sue in the Howard stories, because those stories and that setting were created for him to be the most important person in it. They are quite literally "all about him".

But put him in Middle Earth, or the Young Kingdoms, or Westeros, and he could easily become a Mary Sue.

(OTOH, Put him in Ankh-Morpork, and he'll end up a member of the Watch. ;) )

11:

Ah but that prompts the question: Were Robert E Howard actually writing Clark Ashton Smith fan fiction, would Conan *then* be a Mary Sue?

12:

... or join the Silver Horde?

13:
had Conan settle down in Tolkien's Shire to protect the hobbits from the fallout from the Ring War, then he'd suddenly be this all-travelled, super-cosmopolitan, uber killing machine; an embarrassing Mary Sue

I would submit that you'd probably need one extra thing here in order for Conan to be a Mary Sue: everyone would have to love him and want to be his friend except for the vilest of villains or a couple of cranky bastards who only exist to demonstrate how awesome the Sue is by having said Sue win them over.

Like, in this hypothetical story... say Conan went to the Shire to protect the Hobbits from the fallout of the War of the Ring, and he were this all-travelled, super-cosmopolitan killing machine, as you say. What if the Hobbits weren't cool with that? From their perspective, this enormous, violent foreigner has come into their lands and has probably dealt with Sharky and Lotho Sackville-Baggins by murdering his way through a lot of Men AND through a lot of Hobbits.

This blood-soaked warrior who speaks an uncouth tongue periodically roams the borders of the Shire meting out rough, brutal justice on his own terms and always seems to be present whenever trouble is brewing. Maybe he brings the trouble with him. Some of the Shire-folk like him and are grateful towards him for dealing with the problem they had, but others just want him to go away and shun him and are enormously fearful of him, especially if Conan is going through one of his poor periods and is a "charity" case; are YOU going to tell the murder-giant "no" if he politely asks you for a hot meal and a keg of your finest brew? From your perspective you've just been extorted.

In this scenario, I would say that Conan isn't a Mary Sue regardless of the fact that he can deal with any and all threats to the Shire in an embarrassingly easy ultracompetent fashion as the very biggest fish in a small pond. In order to be a Mary Sue, you'd need shit like "after slitting Sharky's throat all the Hobbits go hurrah and throw a big party and rename Bagshot Row to be Conan's Way and they make him Mayor of Hobbiton and everyone loves him so much except maybe one or two curmudgeons who he eventually wins over."

14:

Great article!

Reminded me of one of the best examples I recall from recent memory of exposition working really well. In "The Martian", when out of the blue, Andy Weir goes into a long, detailed explanation of how the fabric of the entrance was manufactured - that was TERRIFYING!!

Normally, if you were reading a sci fi novel and it suddenly switched into a dry explanation of layering canvas and stitching techniques, you would get annoyed and think "Why is this stupid stuff in here???" Instead, he managed to suck me in so well, that when he went into that dry, really long explanation, all I could think was "Why, God, why is he explaining this?!! Why is this important? I don't want this to be important. Please don't be important! This doesn't matter, right? Please? No. Stop. Stop. Don't get into layering techniques... now I'm too scared to go back to the story. Why would you do that, Andy, why?????"

On it's own, out of context, it is dry description that would be boring even for a textbook. IN context, it was one of the top 2 or 3 most nerve wracking moments of the book for me. The fact that it did stand out so much from the rest of the story and the implication of why it would be included, really worked well at least for me.

15:

Wonderful!

Your example does seem to demonstrate that Mary Sue(-like) status is determined by plot, not character.

16:

I commend Nick Harkaway's Gone Away World to you - the narrator tends to go on paragraph-length digressions about the oddest things. To the original point, it characterizes the narrator as someone who rambles when nervous; as a bonus some are screamingly funny.

17:

I strongly disagree with "plot is character", though I agree with your general points. To those of us for whom reading social nuance and other people is a consciously learnt skill, a major effort, and error-prone even then, books that are dominated by that are, at best, tedious and tiring to read and often highly confusing. That doesn't mean that we like Mary Sues or cardboard characters any more than you do, but making the 'character' a key to understanding or appreciating the book is a complete turn-off.

A better term for what you call plot would be 'design'. Plot (in the strict sense) is part of it, as is exposition, as is character, as is .... Some of the best SF and fantasy is about describing an alternate 'world' and, if that is vivid enough, there may be little to no plot and shallow characters.

When SF and fantasy DOES concentrate on character, I find that it usually grates. That is because it is really, really difficult thing to show how someone thinks in an alien fashion, or even to do so oneself, and I get very irritated when the character so often behaves like a modern, well-off, urban, American (or whatever) in a context where that is clearly inappropriate. Part of that is because I was not brought up in such an environment, and have some idea how much the environment affects your thinking.

18:

I commend Tristram Shandy to you - finding anything that ISN'T a digression is left as an exercise for the reader, as Sterne himself points out.

19:

Ah but Character is also Plot...

The way I see it, structurally, (a) anything that DOES stuff is a character and (2) revelation counts as doing stuff.

So in...

> Some of the best SF and fantasy is about describing an alternate 'world' and, if that is vivid enough, there may be little to no plot and shallow characters.

... I would expect the rhythm of revelation to form a kind of plot, perhaps built on reversals of expectation: "Look we're civilised, but we have gladiators, but they are volunteers, but they are still slaves, but rich women pay for their services, but they mostly live short lives, but some survive, but they become trainers..."

And I totally agree with:

> To those of us for whom reading social nuance and other people is a consciously learnt skill, a major effort, and error-prone even then, books that are dominated by that are, at best, tedious and tiring to read and often highly confusing.

However, in my vision of how fiction works, the following is also character:

Conan: "I live, love, slay and am content.
Civilisation: "I'm going to draw you in and then I'm going to slay you."

20:

Well, it can be, but I intensely dislike the modern deprecation of actual plot, which is the development of events and changes (to character, too, if you want), and it's one of the reasons that I have given up on defective fiction. The Sherlock Holmes stories were plot-dominated (and even the Moonstone was heavy on it), but modern ones have replaced it with sadism and psychopathy, and keep the book going only by having the detective too thick to ask the obvious questions.

21:

To clarify, if an aspect is not about changes over time in the story, and how they affect one another, it's not really plot (in the strict sense). If the changes are merely in the reader's perception, it's exposition. I think that the difference is important, and often forgotten.

To take an example, of Pilgrim's Progress, The Faerie Queen and Middlemarch, which is most turgid? You can probably guess my answer :-)

22:

I'd quibble over your starting definition: the Strong Marysuethropic Principle states that a Mary Sue is nothing more than the author in drag, living out their fantasy of being an action hero. (Having seen pictures of Robert Howard waving a whopping great sword, Conan is clearly a Mary Sue by that definition.)

Needless to say, terminology evolves and there are other definitions, so it's not problematic to redefine the phrase in your own terms as you've done here. But in so doing, we must acknowledge The True History of the Mary Sue. *G*

In terms of infodumps, nobody does it better than Patrick O'Brian. By the time you've finished the Aubrey–Maturin sequence, you could probably hand-build and sail your own tall ship based on the knowledge he's provided. I've spent a fair bit of time wondering how he pulled this off, and I think the answer relates directly to what Martin wrote here: the character and the plot are inextricably intertwined. You can't have one without the other.

One of the things I find when I write is that when I've really got a clear idea of who a character is, they often disagree with me about how the plot should proceed. As the author, I can obviously force them to do whatever I want, but when I do that, they're going to resent how the cruel gods are messing with the character's best-laid plans, and that resentment should have echoes in their actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Often, I give them their head and let them take me somewhere new and unexpected, or we reach a mutually satisfactory compromise. Fiction as negotiation!

(For some discussion of how this arises during and affects the outlining process, see: http://thewritersally.com/articles/how-to-outline-your-way-to-a-better-stronger-book/)

23:

The ultimate example of the character being the plot has to be ...
Pterry ...
The Wee Free Men / A Hat full of Sky / Wintersmith / I shall wear Midnight / The Shepherd's Crown

24:

You could argue that most of Neal Stephenson's work is just exposition and info dumps, but I (and presumably many others) love it.
He does seem to do a good job of integrating (eg) a three page diversion on orbital mechanics into the flow of the book.

25:

Kim Stanley Robinson gave a keynote speech at a recent(ish) WorldCon that might be loosely summarised as "Infodump? So Sue Me".

26:

My problem with Sherlock Holmes, even as a child, is how his deductions are based on his assumptions being 100% in line with reality. Reginald Hill even wrote a story where there was a perfectly plausible alternate explanation for the clues Holmes had collected in a classic Conan Doyle tale and where the great detective ran off with egg on his face. Does a white crease on your fedora with a distinctive pencil mark on your valise ALWAYS mean that you were once a stevedore who joined the Freemasons in Singapore and then took service at a manor in Norfolk.

27:

Not entirely. There are several stories where he gets things wrong, too. But I take your point, though Conan Doyle is NOTHING like as bad at that as many more recent acclaimed detective fiction writers.

28:

There's an even better point there: back when I was TAing ecology classes, I'd suggest to students who were struggling that they read Sherlock Holmes to understand how ecologists think. I don't disagree with you at all that Sherlock Holmes' stuff sometimes gets nonsensical, but the way he assembles disparate clues into a story is exactly the way ecologists (and others, like diagnosticians) think, and it's something a lot of people have trouble emulating. The "odd headspace" Holmes occupies might account for some of his popularity.

The second point is that, if Holmes' method was as infallible as all that, both ecology and medical science would be much further along than they are. The number of diagnostic errors and blown restorations (among many others) support your point, that real life is much more complicated than Holmesian stories.

29:

I'm a little concerned with the notion that character=plot, because I think you could equally extend that to character=plot=story. Because ultimately, it's all words designed to entertain at a level where people will clamor for more, no?

Then you're stuck with the issue of explaining why memorable characters exist in books where you forgot what happened to them (most of Conan's stories for me now, because I read them decades ago), or remembering stories, but forgetting the protagonists' name(s) or much about them (for instance Mercedes Lackey's long list of recycled fairy tales). Indeed, the whole recycled fairy story genre (or any repurposed plot, such as West Side Story), suggests that you can separate plot from character to some degree. Yes, characters have to do things for our conception of a story to exist, but at the same time, if you can reset a story from Renaissance Italy and set it in 20th Century New York and get a similar but not identical story, I'd say there's something useful in separating out the characters that do things from the plot that happens when their actions interact.

30:

I disagree with your premise.

Let me start by saying that I'm reading Multiverse, a *marvelous* collection that Gardiner Dozois and Brin assembled, with a bunch of *very* good authors, writing sequels to stories of Poul Anderson. And memories of him, including by Karen and Astrid.

But... most of the memories talk about Poul being a *storyteller*.

Let me also say that my definition of Mary Sue is the author, as someone put it, in drag, and it's wish fulfilment; there's no real story, or point to it, other than to have the object of one's affection fall for you, sorry, Mary Sue, because they're So Wonderful....

Saying "character is plot" strangles itself. In the Illiad, it's not exactly all about Achilles, is it? Or, for that matter, was Hill Street Blues about one character? For that matter, one of the things I love about The Doctor, in the best stories, is not that *he's* the Hero who suffers and saves everyone, it's that he pushes those around him to be more than they'd ever thought of.

The plot can bring out and develop a character's character... but the point is TELLING A BLOODY STORY.

So as soon as you start looking at tales with multiple main characters, who's character drives it... or is it the interaction?

And then, as in real life, random events can start or skew things, and that's *not* character. Come on - in SF, esp. hard sf, how much is driven, not by character, but, how shall I say it, "The Cold Equations"? In that story, it's the equations, and the pilot and the girl show character... but really have no choices.

And don't get me started on the size of modern novels. It was only in the last 20 years that novels have bloated massively. Tell me a Gordy Dickson novel, maybe Time Storm, isn't as good as anything else around in the last five... but shorter. George Scithers used to push Strunk & White in his rejections.

I think - hope - that bloated novels are a fad. As one agent, and one beta reader both told me about the one I'm trying to sell, a novel has a length that works, and shouldn't be longer or shorter. There are a lot of stories that would be better tales, shorter. And please, give me a novel, not the first book of a 13 book trilogy.

31:

whitroth noted: "I think - hope - that bloated novels are a fad."

Depends on whether you really mean "bloated" (i.e., padded, flabby) or just "long". One problem is that as a proportion of the total cost of producing a book (including marketing, editing, salaries, etc. etc.), printing is a relatively small amount. Increasing a book's length makes buyers feel they're getting their money's worth, without costing the publisher much. And for authors, creating a fun new world means you want to explore it. If you're not planning a series, that creates a powerful urge to explore at great length within a single book. That can be done poorly ("bloated") or well.

whitroth: "As one agent, and one beta reader both told me about the one I'm trying to sell, a novel has a length that works, and shouldn't be longer or shorter."

That's true of any story, but sadly, there are certain expectations that publishers have established (e.g., the minimum length for a novel to distinguish it from novella/novellete/novello/novena/whatever), and we're constrained by those expectations. That doesn't happen if you self-publish (see the thread that developed on this subject after Elizabeth Bear's guest blog), but not everyone can afford to go that route. If memory serves, Rudy Rucker has published a few projects that trad publishers wouldn't touch, despite his name recognition and track record, because those projects didn't fit in the right pigeonholes. So he self-published them. He discussed this in Locus a few years ago.

whitroth: "And please, give me a novel, not the first book of a 13 book trilogy.

Now I'm trying to imagine a 13-book trilogy... must be some kind of Lovecraftian alt-mathematics. *G*

As you've no doubt already discovered with your own novel, once you've invested so much time in creating a new world, you want to enjoy wallowing in it. That's legitimate: any rich world will have stories that last decades or even longer, and that usually takes multiple books.

Perhaps more importantly, audiences who really like the world you've created will want to see more of it. Sometimes much more. (Which is why Charlie is doomed to an eternity of writing Laundry and Merchant Princes books. *G*) It's hard to say no when you receive such a gratifying response from your fans.

32:

The filksong "The Lepers of Dune Meet Godzilla" refers to "Anthony's fourteen-book trilogies" . . .

I would note that there are multiple cases of past writers trying to get unhooked from their most popular series. Doyle threw Holmes off a cliff; Baum made Oz invisible; Lofting sent Dr. Doolittle to the moon and had Stubbins come back without him. These days even the death of the author isn't enough. Bill Watterson's pulling down the curtain on Calvin and Hobbes may be nearly as impressive an achievement as the strip itself.

". . . a man who wrote his own ticket even to retiring when it suited him. . . ." (Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel)

33:

Missed that one by Hill, I think. (Big Hill fan here, regretting I only learned about his novels [a few years] after he died. At least there's still (Lynley/Havers/... ...) Elizabeth George.)

34:

"And please, give me a novel, not the first book of a 13 book trilogy. ...
Now I'm trying to imagine a 13-book trilogy... must be some kind of Lovecraftian alt-mathematics. *G*

And what happens if that was not what the Author intended, but escapes all of it's own?
The phrase is: "Gone all Discworld on me"
As in Atrocity Archives ... -> ... Delirium Brief, for instance? ( Maybe )

35:

> Come on - in SF, esp. hard sf, how much is driven, not by character, but, how shall I say it, "The Cold Equations"? In that story, it's the equations, and the pilot and the girl show character... but really have no choices.

First - structurally - there are three characters in that story. The clue is in the title!

Second, they do have other choices, just not effective ones.

36:

"they do have other choices, just not effective ones."

SPOILERS FOR THE COLD EQUATIONS.

Actually they were effective ones, and in an alternate universe they used them. However the editor (Campbell?) pushed them out the airlock.

37:

Where do I start...

First, about production: the author(s) type it up. It's already digital. Reformatting something is trivial, and there is NO typesetting necessary. Hell, my ultimate example is the bible, "The C Programming Language", by Kernighan and Ritche. They invented the language. They literally typset the book and it hasn't been revised in almost 20 years. We keep reading how going digital cuts costs. The book's not 300 pages, a few line drawings. And I guarantee that it has sold *well* over a literal million copies...and it's gone from mid-$30 to well over $40, and the price keeps going up.

That's bullshit. The multi-mergered publishing companies's CEOs need more money.... The authors aren't getting huge royalties.

Charlie, Harold, how much do you get per book royalty? How much does it *actually*, as opposed to the cooked books, cost for the companies to print, bind, and distribute the book?

Next: kindly note that the SFWA official categorization of fiction is that a novel is 40k words or more. Meanwhile, the publishers are really loathe to look at something 70k+ words, they'd like 80k-100k words and up. You don't get to tell a tale the way it should be told, you have to add more and more, just for the publisher, not for the reader.

Third. I will not self-publish. Now, I was at a panel on publishing at Balticon.
For one, a couple of authors argued, reasonably, that it's not vanity publishing... although I have issues with that: you do not have an editor to say "this doesn't work, continuity's a mess, etc, etc.
For another as one author reminded those attending (I already knew this), that if you self-publish, YOU ARE THE ENTIRE COMPANY. You have to write the book, but also be the company accountant, the sales rep, the marketing rep, legal dept, etc. Are you ready to run it, for real, as a business, and do *all* of those things competently?

Fourth: It's perfectly possible to write novels that are complete. You can go on to explore your lovely world in others. My late wife and I were planning on that: next novel, somewhere else in the universe, and you see another part of it. Besides, those folks who do have a Real Adventure in their lives (def, by Tolkien: you in a comfy chair, with a nice drink, by a fire, reading about someone else risking life and limb a thousand miles away), usually don't go on to have a second adventure. Those that seek them out get to be the classical definition of heroes: *dead*.

SPOILER WARNING...

Fifth: you're not seen a 10-book trilogy? One of the things I DESPISE about Kevin J. Anderson is exactly that: I read four? of the five first books of his Hidden Suns series. And in the forward of the fifth, he remarked at how amazed he was that the series was longer than War And Peace. AND THEN, in the last two chapters, the nasty robots that were defeated, THEY'RE BACK! And then the race that created them, and has been extinct for 10,000 years, THEY'RE BACK!

Right, he got another 5 book contract, and so he *cheats* the reader rather than start another plot line. I will *never* buy anything by him again. And I yelled at him about that at Worldcon last year. I'd forgotten that, with three daughters, how much I was REALLY PISSED at him for Stockholm Syndoming a major female lead, and it's "ok".

Sorry, as much as I love some characters, there's always more to find. Unlike real-world lovers, for characters in multiple novels, I'm happy to switch my affections.

38:

Are there events which are not part of the plot? If a character tips a waiter badly or well or not at all, and the story avoids the restaurant, waiter, and anyone observing the tip or its absence thereafter completely, is the incident part of the 'plot'?

More generally relevant:

I think the way a character lives in the reader's mind in ways I believe must largely be indistinguishable from the ways actual persons and animals do, and that this makes them separate from the the plot. In its relation to character, the plot is less a film (or tape or bit-sequence) of an audio-visual presentation than the sequentially-encoded pattern fed into a 3D printer or a numerically-controlled milling machine.

As such, much the same character—as little different as the same person might be month-to-month—could have been constructed by different plots, and then live in different plots,though those might change them in different ways (and had better, if I'm to like it, though I realise that this were far from universal).

The plot happens to the character…if there is no bit of character distinct from plot there is noöne for the plot to happen-to.

39:

Or else they are two views of the same structure, which is what I believe.

Yes, the character ends up in the reader's mind, but what they have is the same as we have from real people: a mental model based on experience of the character.

And that mental model is a predictive one. "What would Master Chief/Sherlock Holmes/Conan/Jesus do?"

So though not many of us remember specific Conan stories in detail, many of us know Conan's character by observing his actions and when we describe his character it is in terms of actions.

40:

First, about production: the author(s) type it up. It's already digital. Reformatting something is trivial, and there is NO typesetting necessary.

Wrong.

Also, please note, "publishing" is as much an umbrella term as "engineering". We have civil engineering, marine engineering, electronic engineering, and a bunch of other barely-tangentially-related disciplines; similarly, "publishing" is about sixteen different industries related solely by the fact that once upon a time they used to involve printing presses at some stage in the process. (Your example of K&R is irrelevant to trade fiction publishing, much as standards for bridge abutments are irrelevant to microprocessor design. (And you seem to have forgotten that K&R worked on UNIX at a time when it was sold as a typesetting system, and they had secretarial/admit staff to help out, not to mention grad students and technical staff as volunteer proofreaders.)

41:

whitroth ranted a great rant. I think we agree on a couple points (e.g., the pleasures of exploring a world at length in self-contained novels). I think you missed the point that (by definition) a trilogy is 3 books, not 10 or 14. Yes, some 10-book series (not naming any names) could have been done more concisely in 3 books. If that's what you mean, we agree on that point too.

However:

(1) Formatting and production are not trivial. Anyone can click "export to EPUB", but the resulting dog's breakfast will ensure that nobody buys one of your e-books again. It takes time and effort ($$$) to format an eBook properly. I say this as someone who's been publishing books and monographs for nearly 30 years, and who's handled all aspects of production.

(2) You dismiss professional editing, presumably because an editor scared you when you were a young author. A good editor (and yes, there are bad ones) will help you tell the story you actually wanted to tell. I've published on the order of 400 articles (not including blog posts), and every time, the editor makes me look better. You too, fwiw.

(3) If you don't mean "self-publishing", what does "indie publishing" mean in your lexicon? If you mean "small press", you'll have exactly the same problems you'd have with a big publisher (i.e., contracts and the need for the publisher to earn a living for their staff too) but without any economies of scale. Someone has to do the work to get your book out to the world; if you don't have time and expertise to do it yourself, you need to pay someone to do it for you. Facts of life.

42:

I like a rollicking good story. I don't care much about the nuts & bolts of how you get there, although I think it's more fun if there's lots of new stuff I don't yet know so I can look it up & learn.

43:

> Besides, those folks who do have a Real Adventure in their lives (def, by Tolkien: you in a comfy chair, with a nice drink, by a fire, reading about someone else risking life and limb a thousand miles away), usually don't go on to have a second adventure. Those that seek them out get to be the classical definition of heroes: *dead*.

I think you'll find that that depends on the era and the people. William the Marshal had a wild time as a knight errant in his 20s, went crusading in his 30s, stormed a castle single handed in his 50s, led a massive cavalry charge in his 70s. Died in bed.

Don Pero Nino... his biography reads like the transcript of a historical roleplaying game featuring a highly skilled but not very bright cavalier.

Jack Churchill... and so on.

Point being that some people are adventurers by vocation.

44:

I think you'll find that that depends on the era and the people. William the Marshal had a wild time as a knight errant in his 20s, went crusading in his 30s, stormed a castle single handed in his 50s, led a massive cavalry charge in his 70s. Died in bed.

Unfortunately this is a classic case of confirmation bias; we notice outliers because they're outliers.

I was in a taxi yesterday and the cabbie asked me what I do and I unwisely told him the truth and he went off on a cabbie-monologue about writers ... "but some of you are really successful, like that J. K. Rowling guy ..."

J. K. Rowling scooped something like half the profits in the entire fantasy/YA sector over a ten year period. The rest of us got the Hero-equivalent of a spear-carrier's shallow grave.

45:

It is partly down to definitions, though.

What's an Adventure-with-a-capital-A?

I'd say as a benchmark, only those stories worthy of a full length Bernard Cornwell novel where the protagonist really is a protagonist and not just caught up in something bigger - Band of Brothers isn't an Adventure story - or a one-off-mishap - any of the various crash/wreck/wilderness survival stories.

If that's the definition, then generally when I read about a real life Adventure, it's not the only one that the protagonist has had. Some people just seek out adventure and if they survive the first one, they come back and do it again.

However, I note that in Fantasy in particular, it's common for the main character to be a reluctant adventurer and the real adventurer to be a secondary character. Partly this has to be seepage from the LOTR, but a trope from the Hero's Journey. So from that pov, whitroth is correct.

(I hasten to add that I am *not* an adventurer.)

46:

M Harold Page noted: "Point being that some people are adventurers by vocation."

And, of course, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (the title of an excellent biography of the man).

Charlie noted: "Unfortunately this is a classic case of confirmation bias; we notice outliers because they're outliers."

Very true in the context of history, but not quite right in the present context. MHP was selecting historical examples to support the overall point of this blog entry, which is about fictional characters. Unless we're reading a superhero comic, most novels feature one or very few larger-than-life characters surrounded by the rest of the normal world. That's an authorial choice (a different kind of selection bias), but one that fills an important market niche.

There have been and can be more stories about the spearcarriers (e.g., "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"), but they seem not to be what most people want to read.

47:

Ok, I'd never heard of Thompson and Ritchie inventing UNIX as a typesetting system - I heard they wanted to play games on the computer they had....

And the point I was making about K&R was that *they* typeset it, including the last edition, in the '90s, with ANSI C. And I'm not sure there have been major edits since... but the price keeps going up.

48:

Thank you, thank you...

1. I was not dismissing formatting and production. Trust me, I understand, having exported the .pdf's that several idiot publisher give for the Hugo readers' packet. But the real expense for the actual work, by the "salaried", is not what's contributing to the price increases.
2. You clearly misread me. Nooooo, for my/our novel, I want a Real Editor, which is one reason I'm trying for an angent. If I bounce off the Big Five, I'll try large, older small presses, ones that have authors who won awards. One big problem with self-publishing is - no professional editor who is NOT YOU.
3. Not sure what you're arguing here. See mcts, above. When I say self-publish, I mean just that: as I said, originally, you are *everything*, there's no one else working on getting it to the readers.

For that matter, I have a friend who created her own publishing house... to publish her work. The one of her trilogy I've gotten, the first, isn't bad... but a real editor would have been better, and she needs better marketing....

49:

Let me say this about that: I've read that the *average*, not the superstar, professional American football player retires after about six years with the body of a 59 yr. old. No surprise - what do you *think* happens to your body, being run into at maybe 10 or more mph by a quarter ton or half ton of other players, weighing 200 - 350 lbs?

Also, consider that, at least in the US, 67% of all new businesses fail in the first year.

Now apply the above to someone Going Out To Look For Adventure.

And, just for good measure, let me tell you about people I truly consider a hero, and for whom I'd be pleased to buy a drink. On 1 Jan 1982, a passenger jet tried to take off from National Airport in DC, and wound up crashing on the 14th St. Bridge, and into the ice-filled water of the Potomac. One passenger was stuck in the water, but help to hand passengers out until he died. (I have heard he was stuck on metal in his crotch.) There was also a self-described bureaucrat, walking into work, who dropped his coat, jumped into the Potomac, and helped bring one or more people to safety.

The latter was interviewed in the mid-90's: still a bureaucrat, no book contract.. he said he just did what needed to be done.

50:

Thompson wanted to play games on a spare PDP-8, true. So he had to write a file system and boot loader and a compiler for it, and roped some of his friends in, and ended up spending too much time on it. Then word came down that corporate wanted an electronic word processing/typesetting system and his team was supposed to provide it and they'd spent all their time on this toy games platform, so they hastily knocked up a formatter and bundled everything onto a PDP-11, and presented it as a solution. And, this being circa 1972/73, it was actually a bloody good solution by the standards of the era and spread internally at Bell Labs.

(Summarized loosely from memory; some details may be mildly inaccurate.)

The thing is, K&R had form, not to mention an entire typesetting system they'd participated in the invention of, and secretarial and other assistance. Meanwhile, I'd just like to add that proofreading a technical reference like "The C Programming Language" is utterly different from a novel (clue: the former contains large chunks that can be programmatically verified — throw the listings at a compiler and see if they work — and is also less than a quarter the word count).

51:

Actually, it was a bloody good solution as a hacker's, er, computer scientist's, workbench, for use by collaborators in a protected environment; it was inferior to the best systems of the time for people who were computer users, or needed security, networking, automated management etc. Even modern Unices are not good, though the surviving competition is worse.

I don't want to be unnecessarily rude, but have spent quite a lot of my time in this sort of area, and "The C Programming Language" is NOT something to hold up as an example of how things should be done. Quite the converse, in fact, especially the second edition, which was a political document. You are absolutely correct that proofreading technical references is very different, but your example is more-or-less irrelevant - a lot of broken code will compile, and even seem to work.

52:

Elderly Cynic notes: "a lot of broken code will compile, and even seem to work."

Indeed. The hard part about programming is creating code that actually does what it's intended to do rather than something unexpected. For example:
http://www.zdnet.com/article/excel-errors-microsofts-spreadsheet-may-be-hazardous-to-your-health/

To be clear, I understand that Charlie is NOT claiming that successful compilation means the same thing as code validation. It only demonstrates that the code's syntax (and a few other details) is correct. Using the "will it compile" test is much like using any of the commonly available readability formulas to parse text and determine whether it's readable. It don't work worth a damn, folks. Any readability formula that can't distinguish between a clear and effective sentence and the exact same sentence with the words randomized is worthless and probably dangerously misleading.

53:

"The C Programming Language" is NOT something to hold up as an example of how things should be done. Quite the converse, in fact, especially the second edition, which was a political document.

I'm curious - how is it a "political document"? I mean, it got that cute "ANSI C" stamp on the front cover, but I never noticed any politics...

Now, Les Hatton's "Safer C" - there's fun... (I enjoy his articles, even if they make for uncomfortable reading)

http://www.leshatton.org/Documents/SoftwareEngineering_HattonFeb2016.pdf

54:

SPAM ALERT - SEE POST 54, above!

Note to mods - plese delete this message as well, once done?

55:

Not deleting your comment because replying instead.

The spam came in in the small hours (UK time) while I was in bed, late enough that our US west coast mod(s) were probably also AFK, and I note that with worldcon coming up next week more than two of the moderators are traveling internationally (either right now, or in the next few days).

I'm going to be flying out to Helsinki tomorrow at zero-dark o'clock, and won't be back until the following Wednesday, for example, so blogging may be scanty in the meantime (and spam removed a bit late).

56:

The second edition was rushed into print, to try to force the standards' committee's hand on certain decisions; it failed, which is why it is also a seriously misleading book. I was active in the standard at the time, as was Les Hatton.

57:

I once read a hundred pages or so of a Kevin J Anderson book (wheelers, I think). Then I said a Bad Word and hurled it across the room. You're clearly more tolerant than me.

58:

Thnks, CHarlie ... all OK
FLying at WHAT hour, euw......

59:

Which book is the Sharpe info dump example in? I want to read it and see, but I do not have time to plow through 24 books for a small scene

60:

re: Kernighan & Ritchie - I used to work for Prentice Hall (the publishers of The C Programming Language) in the UK the 1980s and 90s and I am pretty sure (not that I saw the US stats) it had already sold a million copies worldwide by the time the second edition came out in 1988, ten years after the first. In around 1983, when I was covering London, Foyles alone had a period of needing 100 a month or so, and if I remember right even then it was selling for about £18 a copy.

The authors, I think we were told, had initially expected to sell about 5000, and the first few years were reasonably slow.

61:

LOL. I failed to cite it for the same reason you don't want to go look for it! I think it was Sharpe's Tiger.

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