Regarding Sauron: On Ambiguous Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have Pen, Will Travel

Keith Souter is a Scottish-born writer living in England within an arrow’s shot of ruins of a medieval castle. A part time doctor, he writes medical books and general non-fiction books. He also writes crime fiction under his own name and Westerns as Clay More. Souter’s novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs was reprinted as the debut title in The Western Fictioneers (e-book) Library.

Many moons ago, as a youngster I used to sit riveted to the floor in front of a small nine-inch, black and white television and watch suave Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter solve some mystery or dispute, using both his brains and his weaponry. He gave out calling cards with the picture of a white chess knight and the words ‘Have Gun- Will Travel’ emblazoned across it. For that half hour I was transported back to the Old West.

It was not long before I discovered the joys of reading westerns. I devoured all the novels that my father had lying about the house by the likes of Max Brand, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I dreamed of being able to conjure up tales such as they were able to tell.

I started writing children’s stories for magazines when I was studying medicine at Dundee University in Scotland. Inevitably, I longed to have my name on the spine of an actual book. It was then that I came across that old adage, ‘write about what you know.’ It is one of the nuggets of writing wisdom, except it can be a bit of a stumbling block, because it is often misinterpreted.

In my case as a medical doctor I assumed that it mean that I should write a medical thriller or maybe a medical romance. The problem was, that I worked in medicine and didn’t want to spend my thinking and writing time in medicine. So I had several false starts on various non-medical novels, and like most writers I have a drawer full of opening chapters for several books that never saw the light.

Then it dawned on me. It didn’t mean that I had to write exclusively about a medical world, but that I should use my medical knowledge to really make a character stand out and be believable. Or I should be able to drip in details about drugs, operations, or snippets of medical history. And that is just what I did in my first western novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs. I did the same with several other westerns before turning to crime! I created an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and peopled it with believable characters, including the local doctor, who doubles as a police surgeon. And here my Inspector McKinnon can solve crimes using his brains rather than depending upon forensic science and DNA.

Crossing one genre gives you the confidence to do it again. The bridge that I use, which allows me to adopt the ‘Have Pen – Will Travel’ approach, is medicine. I am able to create believable medical situations. For example, I have very much enjoyed doing this in the ‘shared world’ of Wolf Creek, where my character, Dr Logan Munro is the town doctor. Similarly, I use it in my historical novels, which are set in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

In addition to fiction I write non-fiction books and here again I cross genres. I write about medicine and health, which is an extension of my work as a doctor and medical journalist, and I write books about sport, science, history and games. The bridge is not always medicine, may be another of my special interests. As a western novelist I have immersed myself in nineteenth century history. One result was a book that linked up Victorian quackery, magical entertainment and fraudulent spiritualist mediums, Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians – the Victorian era of Credulity. It had all been sparked by my interest in the pseudo-science of Phrenology, which was in vogue in the nineteenth century. Phrenologists asserted that the lumps and bumps on the head reflected the convulsions of the brain, and that the character of an individual could be determined by having the head read by a phrenologist. From a Victorian perspective, it was totally plausible. Having written the book I picked up my pen and travelled over to the Wild West and wrote a tale for Western Fictioneers’ latest anthology Six-Guns and Slay Bells: a Creepy Cowboy Christmas. My story is called Snake Oil and is about a creepy phrenological snake oil salesman.

I then travelled across another genre, this time back to my roots as a children’s writer. My latest novel The Curse of the Body Snatchers is for 8-13 years olds and is set in Victorian London. It too is a ghost story with a mysterious phrenologist and mesmerist. And the plot revolves around medicine. Essentially, my message is that you don’t have to set your story in your relevant world. What you can do is drop in a character that shows your expertise. That way, you can use your pen to travel across the genres. Happy travelling.

Lines in the Genre Sand

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are playmates in the genre sandbox, but there are clear lines that divide and define the genres, right? Spaceships=Science fiction. Magic=Fantasy. Ghosts=Horror.

How would you define Ray Bradbury? Was he a science fiction writer? A horror writer? Many of his stories blur the genre lines. There Will Come Soft Rains is the story of an automated house going about its usual tasks of cooking and cleaning. After a time, it becomes clear that humankind has been destroyed by nuclear war. At face value, it’s science fiction. Except for the burned-out images of the family on the side of the house; except for the dog that returns to the house to die; except for the house itself unable to prevent its own destruction when fire breaks out.

The story has always felt like horror to me. Science fiction flavored horror, sure. Much like the movie Alien which is basically a haunted house story, with a xenomorph and a ship instead of a ghost and rotting rafters.

I think writers often limit themselves genre-wise. They define themselves (or are defined) with a genre label and then write only things that will fit within that box. Maybe you’ve written ten science fiction stories and call yourself a science fiction writer, but what happens when you have a great idea about a magician? Are you going to decide not to write it because it isn’t science fiction? If you choose that path, I ask why?

Sometimes exploring another genre will open you up to new storytelling methods or new ways to twist the familiar into something else. And you don’t have to follow clear cut genre definitions; the Genre Police will not come and slap on the cuffs if you add a pinch of magic to your horror or a bit of horror in your science fiction.

If you feel your career will be best served by keeping your published work in the same genre, you are still not bound by a set of invisible rules when it comes to writing. Sometimes you just need to write for yourself. Warm up the word machine with tidbits of an epic fantasy or science fiction or horror. Indulge in a literary vignette.

If Stephen King had decided to write only horror, there would be no The Shawshank Redemption, no The Body (filmed as Stand by Me). If Justin Cronin had decided to remain a literary writer, there would be no The Passage. Same with Colson Whitehead and Zone One.

Write the stories that are in you. Let other people decide the genre.


A final caveat: My debut novel, Ink, was released last year from Samhain Horror, but if you ask me if I’m a horror writer, I’ll probably answer, “I’m not sure.” Most of what I write is dark, but is it all horror? I’m content to let others decide.

The Search-Engine Race

We’ve been discussing the vagaries of marketing a lot lately, mostly behind the scenes. It’s something that becomes more necessary all the time. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve got a couple of publicity and marketing people on staff!

On Monday, Steve spent the day in marketing seminars connected to his day job. One of the main topics was FB, and their new search engine.

Yeah, you heard that right. Yet another ‘wonderful new service’ offered by Facebook, and one that raises even more privacy concerns. Because we didn’t have enough from Facebook…

Unfortunately, it also means that there’s another thing you need to start paying attention to, in the social arena. The discussion about whether a writer/publisher/editor/book/anthology/etc. should build a Facebook page dedicated to their work is OVER. Facebook is getting into the search game and going head-to-head with Google and Microsoft. Each of those big engines hates all the others and nobody is going to play nice. What this means for everybody within the sound of our collective voices is that they need to take their work to Facebook and get set up with their own page. Authors need a dedicated Facebook page. Publishing houses (big or small) need a dedicated Facebook page. Even individual books (or series of books) may need a dedicated Facebook page. Without going into lengthy detail, it can be easily said that Facebook is going to give rank to whatever comes first in their social scene. If you’re an author or a publisher or whatever, you want to “beat” the unofficial fan pages to Facebook in order to secure brand protection. The good news here, of course, is that Facebook costs nothing to set up and run. It’s just time and trouble.

By the way – the same goes for Google+ in all respects. Google is already making plans to follow what Facebook is setting in motion.

Some examples of who might best benefit from setting up their own Facebook pages (before the rise of the fan pages) would be as follows:

Any author of any type – from Stephen King and Neil Gaiman all the way down to any writer just getting started.
Any book series (Harry Potter series, Dresden series by Jim Butcher, Cthulhurotica 1, 2, etc.).
Any anthology series (Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 1, 2, 3, etc. by Ellen Datlow, anything that John Joseph Adams is doing).
Any publishing house big or small or any imprint (Macmillan should have one, so should their imprint TOR).
Anyone working in a supporting role in the industry (an artist like Galen Dara or John Picacio).
Any writing workshop (Clarion, whatever).
Any genre fiction magazine in print or online.
There’s also good reason for Editors, Agents, Critics, etc. to get their own Facebook pages set up.

Want an excellent example of an author kicking ass on Facebook, look at Joe Lansdale. That guy uses the SHIT out of Facebook – not only to communicate and educate, but to promote the hell out of his work and sell his books.
And if I didn’t say it strongly enough before, “Brand Protection” is one of the main focuses. Imagine if everyone who searched “Galen Dara” was shown results that naturally led to a top-ranking Facebook “fan page” with a bunch of goofy art commentary all over it. This could happen – simply because Galen didn’t take the time to get her “official” page up and running and was waaaaay behind in the “likes” and “friends” department.

Yes, working Facebook and Google+ (and whatever comes next) will take time and effort. But even the Big 6 Houses are dumping marketing and social networking on their writers, so this should come as no surprise. As always, if you want to succeed, you’ll have to work for it.